MORAL THERAPEUTIC DEISM?

ANTICIPATING CRITICISM

My arguments thus far have attempted to knock over many a sacred cow and have challenged cherished beliefs and convictions of many. Obviously, I’m anticipating criticism to my proposals and thus want to conclude this first section of essays by addressing such concerns. I expect criticism and objections from various directions, although I expect most of my criticism to charge me with some form of reductionism.

WATERING DOWN THE FAITH?

First, I expect there will be those who wish to defend supernaturalism. As I’ve previously intimated, supernaturalism is a varied, diverse set of ideas. Supernaturalism can be a philosophical position that there must be a noncontingent grounding and source for the contingent world, thus posting some reality beyond (or at least in addition to) the natural order. For others supernaturalism, at least in a Christian, biblical sense, involves convictions of beings that exist outside the natural order – God, angels, spirits, and so forth. And there are those for whom supernaturalism isn’t limited to Christian or religious contexts and involves ghosts, magic, fortune telling, and various special powers.

Those who assert supernatural orders or realities must provide evidence for such. This assertion reflects the necessities of reason and logic and is not the result of scientism or other reductionist modes of thinking. Accordingly, I have inconclusive sympathy for arguments of noncontingency – but remain not fully convinced, but intrigued. There is merit to such discussion and thought, and arguing for noncontingent reality may not necessarily require veering off into dualisms and supernaturalisms.

As for God and other supernatural entities, I find these to be metaphors, useful ones, for transcendent, but natural realities. (See my section on Oran Mor for further detail.) Magic makes sense only as a form of self hypnosis and personal psychological influencing using ritual and symbolism. It is best understood as a way of altering human consciousness, not a controlling or influencing of events or external realities. As for ghosts and spirits and such, again, repeatable, verifiable evidence is needed to justify such claims and I find such evidence lacking.

Again, I caution that concepts of supernaturalism can be diverse and complex. What constitutes supernatural claims and views in the Christianities of today, isn’t exactly the same worldview and understanding of such held by early Christians or those in the Middle Ages. These notions have always been evolving and changing according to the intellectual and cultural milieu. There are subtle, but meaningful differences between seeing the natural order as enchanted or spiritually infused, asserting transcendent realities and values, treating deity, angels, and spirits as symbols and metaphors, and actually asserting the concrete existence of personal gods and things such as demonic activity. Many forms of so-called supernatural worldview are the result of sloppy reasoning and ideas collected, but not fully thought through.

Regardless, arguing from a liberal naturalist vantagepoint does not ruin or render religion impotent. On the contrary, it frees it from superstition and allows it to focus on normative concerns germane to its purview. Christianity, its practices and ideas, can be a source of profound, powerful personal and social transformation without degrading into fantasy and grand theological conjecture without grounding.

MORALISTIC THERAPEUTIC DEISM?

A second thrust of criticism is related to the first, that I have reduced Christianity to what has become known in certain circles as morally therapeutic deism. The notion is not a positive one in the eyes of those who wield it as criticism.

The notion originates with Notre Dame Catholic sociologist Christian Smith who describes a common combination of beliefs that he labels moralistic therapeutic deism:

  1. A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Alluding that my theological proposals are some form of morally therapeutic deism (MTD) is something of a category error, although I do grasp similarities.

But first, one significant difference must be noted between my theological musings and MTD. MTD retains elements of supernaturalism, an active, personal God who intervenes, albeit weakly, in human affairs. Even the fifth point of MTD, notions of heaven, again rely on at least a soft, supernaturalist outlook.

Where I accept the similarities between my own thinking and MTD is hinted at by the first two words of the title itself – morally therapeutic. When one factors out unjustified supernatural claims, one comes to see the value and purpose of religion as a way or manner of seeing the world. A religious viewpoint, properly speaking, is to see the world through a lens that highlights the normative, qualified aspects of reality – moral concerns, issues of personal character, and questions of core, existential meaning.

There is a real and genuine sense in which Christianity, like most other religions, whether it be understood supernaturally or not, is, to a significant extent, morally therapeutic. Any effort at personal and social transformation is, and there is nothing wrong with this. While Christianity, even a naturalist or humanist version, is more than moral therapy, those who level charges of MTD typically are bemoaning the downplaying or rejection of the supernatural elements of traditional Christianity.

Commentator Damon Linker, notes, that viewed in broader terms, a nation in which a majority embraced something like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism would still be Christian in all kinds of important ways–its moral and civic outlook, for example, would be a distillation of the Christian ethic of loving one’s neighbor–it just wouldn’t be the kind of Christian nation that makes a theocon feel all warm and fuzzy. And that’s a very good thing indeed.

DILUTION OR DAMAGE?

In light of this anticipated push back, the onus is on me to render Christian humanism as a meaningful, durable, and efficacious form of Christian understanding. This is my intention in the second set of essays that follow.

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